Sustainability advocate says go big to go green

Founder of Alex Steffen spoke at Hendricks Chapel about achieving big green change.

Those in attendance at Hendricks Chapel might have been surprised by the many statistics and studies Alex Steffen rattled off about environmental sustainability Tuesday afternoon. Yet the sometimes counter-intuitive facts he cited all pointed to a common theme: achieving a sustainable future, he says, isn’t about doing things differently -- it’s about doing different things.

Steffen, founder and executive editor of the popular web site, spoke to a crowd of more than 300 about the effects of climate change and how we should go about mitigating them. Instead of dwelling on problems or providing temporary fixes, much of the speech focused on new, radical approaches -- like urbanization (the growth of urban cities) -- that would overhaul the entire system.

Photo: Kenneth Hendrix
Alex Steffen is the author of "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."
“I found it interesting that he thought it was a good idea for people to move back into cities, when in fact I’ve heard that cities are what create the problem,” said Mirosoav Milanov, a senior industrial design major at Syracuse University.

Steffen’s vision for an urbanized future asserts that, even though cities are densely populated and can create waste, they also bring people closer together. Consequently, people spend less time driving cars to get from one place to another and more time at those places. This not only creates more efficient time use but also less of a carbon imprint, as more people can walk or ride bikes.

“The reality is that it takes so much less energy to live in a compact, walkable community than it does to live in the suburbs,” said Steffen. “We are better off, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, living in a conventional, not-at-all hip green condo than we are living in a green McMansion.”

Another aspect to Steffen’s “bright green” outlook on environmental change -- a term he coined in 2003 that involves social innovation -- focused on technology and its importance to our planet’s viability. He listed a number of resources such as the iNap application and One Bus Away Web site that help city dwellers to navigate public transportation more effectively. Then he pulled up a screen shot from a site called Garbage Scout, where users upload photos of garbage around New York City that others might want.

“In this case they’re telling you there’s a pair of underpants left in Brooklyn a mere 15 hours before, in case you’re in the market,” Steffen said, eliciting a chorus of chuckles. “Right now, almost everything used in our lives ends up in a landfill. Yet understanding the back-story, making visible what’s invisible actually helps up understand why things are good or bad,” he said.

This discussion soon touched upon another prevalent theme of the afternoon: the 21st century American obsession with consumerism. Steffen said trillions of dollars are spent to create an emotional attachment with products that we will only throw away in the end.

“I agree with what he said that we’re too into material things, that our relationship with them is too dependent,” said freshman Jennifer Ruocco. “We fill our lives with this junk that we don’t really care about,” said Ruocco, a communications and rhetorical studies major.

While actions like recycling waste and eating less beef may contribute by reducing our carbon footprint, they may only be a small part of the solution, Steffen said. Large-scale efforts like reforming auto infrastructures, redesigning cities, and expanding civic engagement are how the real changes will be made.

“Go rethink the world. Go imagine a brighter future,” Steffen concluded his speech. “And I leave you with Paul Hawken’s lines, ‘You are brilliant, and the earth is hiring.’”

Alex SteffenVideo:

See what Alex Steffen has to say about universities and big-picture sustainability.

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